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Top 25 Baseball Stories of 2016 — #18: MLB adopts “The Chase Utley Rule”

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We’re a few short days away from 2017 so it’s a good time to look back at the top 25 baseball stories of 2016. Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were creatures of social media, fan chatter and the like. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most this past year.

In most cases, the difference between a runner being out and being safe is a simple matter of timing: if the ball or the tag beats you to the bag, you’re out. If you beat the ball or the tag, you’re safe.

At second base, however, runners have always had the option of resorting to physical force in order to make up for poor timing by slamming into, undercutting or otherwise interfering with the infielder. Indeed, physically taking out the shortstop or second baseman in such a situation is considered sound fundamental play in this otherwise violence-free sport.

Or at least it was until Game 2 of the 2015 NLDS. That’s when Chase Utley of the Los Angeles Dodgers slid into second base in an effort to break up a double play. In doing so he broke the leg of Mets infielder Ruben Tejada. It was a hard slide, to some a dirty slide, but one not unlike which players had been executing since the advent of the game.

As Buster Posey fans can tell you, however, when a high profile player is injured or, as with Tejada’s leg, an injury occurs in a high profile situation, the blowback is a lot bigger than it would be if the injury happened to Joe Schmo or in a nationally televised game during the playoffs. That gets people talking and when people get talking Major League Baseball, as it so often does, reacts. As a result of the Chase Utley/Ruben Tejada play, baseball reacted by changing the rules related to slides at second base.

The new rule, announced in February, is Rule 6.01, but was called “The Chase Utley Rule” by many. It requires that runners try to make a “bona fide slide” instead of a takeout slide. Specifically, runners are to slide prior to reaching the base, rather than slamming into an infielder in a manner that almost, but not entirely, fails to resemble a slide. Even when sliding, the runner is now required to slide so that he is able to reach or touch the base or at least be able to make a plausible attempt to do so, rather than sliding several feet to the left or right of the bag in the direction of the infielder. Finally the runner is not allowed to change his pathway to the base.

There was some grumbling about the rule at first, with many baserunners and baseball purists lamenting the end of a hard nosed tradition. Even some infielders, who were the ones being protected by the rule, lamented it a bit, talking wistfully about how learning which runners were likely to kill you and learning how to not be killed by them was a part of the infielder’s craft. In practice, the new rule made an ignominious debut when it was invoked twice in the season’s first week, once against Jose Bautista and once against Colby Rasmus, both of which resulted in game-ending plays as opposed to ongoing rallies.

As is the case with most things, however, the furor soon calmed down. Mostly because players learned to live with the new rule and stopped trying to kill infielders. Partially, I suspect, because umpires loosened their standards for what was and was not a “bona fide slide” as the season progressed. It happens with a lot of new rules.

Indeed, a lot of new rules eventually become a lot like a lot of old rules: on the books but unenforced. Sort of like Rule 6.05(m), which had long been on the books when the new slide rule was adopted. You may not know much about that one, though, as it prohibited base runners from interfering with fielders who were trying to make plays. It hadn’t been enforced for ages.

 

Bryce Harper to Little League players: “No participation trophies, first place only”

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Nationals’ star outfielder Bryce Harper had some words of advice for a local Little League team on Saturday, telling a crowd of young players and their parents that winning matters far more than any participation trophies they might receive for their efforts on the field.

“As much as they might tell you, ‘Oh, it’s okay, you guys lost…’ No, Johnny, no,” Harper explained. “No participation trophies, okay? First place only. Come on.”

The panic over participation trophy culture has swelled over the last few years as studies continue to suggest that children are happier when they’re praised for their accomplishments, rather than rewarded for simply trying their best. The general idea is that kids aren’t motivated to succeed when they know they’ll receive a ribbon or medal celebrating their efforts at the end of the day — regardless of whether they win or lose. (Granted, it stands to reason that every kid can feel the difference between winning a championship trophy and receiving a participation ribbon.) Some have taken the idea to an extreme, claiming that when a child receives too many accolades for mediocre or poor performances, it can warp the way they view the world by generating a sense of undeserved entitlement.

Harper kept his tone light during the Q&A session, however, drawing cheers and applause from the majority of parents and a few of the kids. The 2015 NL MVP has routinely taken his own advice over the years, earning Rookie of the Year honors, four All-Star nominations and a Silver Slugger award since he broke into the major leagues in 2012. Next on his list? A World Series championship.

Indians to move Danny Salazar to the bullpen

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MLB.com’s William Kosileski reports that Indians starter Danny Salazar is being moved to the bullpen and will be available as soon as Wednesday or Thursday. The Indians will go on a five-game road strip starting on June 2, and manager Terry Francona said that Salazar could get a start during that trip.

Salazar, 27, has struggled to a 5.50 ERA over his first 10 starts this season. While none of those starts were absolute disasters, he failed to finish the sixth inning in seven of those 10 starts. It’s a far cry from his performance over the last two seasons, when he finished with a 3.45 ERA and 3.87 ERA.

Salazar’s walk rate is up to a career-high 11.9 percent, per FanGraphs, and he’s allowing many more line drives at the expense of ground balls. Compared to 2016, his line drive rate is up 8.9 percent and his ground ball rate is down 10.4 percent. All of that could explain Salazar’s struggles to some extent.